Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Francophone Oddities: The Brand New Testament & Evolution (2016)

The review of The Brand New Testament went up on Christmas Eve, which kind of amused me, as cheerfully blasphemous as the movie is. I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s kind of fun.

These two movies make an interesting pair, in that they’re both kind of high-concept fantasies that don’t have a lot of conventional, character-has-a-problem-and-solves-it-while-learning-about-themselves story, which isn’t a bad thing, but does mean that when the gags and stuff aren’t working, there’s not necessarily a whole lot to keep things going.

√Čvolution (2016)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

√Čvolution is the sort of art-house science fiction one gets when the filmmakers have come up with a fascinating setting but seemingly don’t want to slum it in genre by attaching their concepts to a conventional story: Frequently brilliant in conception and executed with impressive precision, but potentially unsatisfying. What, after all, is the point of creating all of this if you’re not going to actually use it?

It offers up an unusual town, seemingly populated entirely by boys aged about ten or eleven and their mothers. For better or worse, the boys don’t seem that unusual, with the bigger ones often pushing Nicolas (Max Brebant) around, though he doesn’t seem to be quite as sickly as his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) would seem to have it, judging by the medicine she dispenses. Swimming in the ocean alone one day, Nicolas sees a dead body, and while the boys doubt it, it seems to cause a great deal of consternation among the women. Perhaps this is why he’s rushed off to the hospital, where nurse Stella (Roxane Duran) is learning some particularly odd medicine.

The seaside village where these folks all live is an enjoyably homey environment; the sort of place that has not exactly been passed by but has seemed to resist being swallowed up by franchises and tourism, even if some places seem kind of run-down. It suggests stability, that the situation we see has been the same for a long time, even if it seems untenable, with the maintenance left to the folks in the hospital, vital to the town but seemingly not truly part of it. It makes for an interesting contrast with the frequent scenes set underwater, which often serve to remind the audience that there’s an alien world that operates on different rules down there, as nearby and yet utterly bizarre as what goes on in the hospital.

Full review on EFC.

Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

A couple days after seeing it, The Brand New Testament seems a bit more clever in its satire than it did in the moment, when its loose storytelling can make it seem to have only the vaguest idea where it wants to go with its critique of religion. It takes a moment or three to realize that chaos and lack of direction are part of the point, although filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael’s fondness for the weird doesn’t always translate into the dry, absurdist wit it’s going for.

It posits that, in addition to his well-known son, God also has a daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), about ten years old and very much not impressed with her father (Benoit Poelvoorde), who is a petty tyrant, abusive to both Ea and her mother (Yolande Moreau) within the bounds of the three-bedroom apartment with no windows or doors to the outside that they call home. Fed up, Ea has a talk with her brother “JC”, who creates a portal in the washing machine that she can use to escape to Brussels, where she seeks six apostles to help her write a “Brand New Testament” - and on the way out the door, she sneaks into God’s computer room and sends everyone on Earth a text message with the dates and times of their deaths before locking him out of the system, ensuring that he’ll pursue her.

Despite Ea’s dry narration and a performance by Pili Groyne that’s pretty good even if one’s French is limited or nonexistent - she captures the self-doubt and often-smothered rage of the girl in muted but unmistakable fashion - Ea spends much of the movie not being very interesting herself. She’s a necessary construct, a way to get the death-dates out and an excuse to have six or eight unusual people narrate their stories, but she doesn’t seem to be learning or growing that much as she explores the human world, and the times she affects the story later on are often rather random, a quick way to accomplish the connections that the screenwriters want to make. Until she meets her sixth apostle, a boy her own age named Willy (Romain Gelin), she’s much more unformed idea than character.

Full review on EFC.

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